10.21.08 7:38 AM ET
The Pessimists' Party
Wondering if you're really a Democrat? Here's a quick way to find out: Given everything the Democratic party has going for it this year —the overwhelming financial advantage, the legions of new voters, George W. Bush —do you believe the Obama campaign could still somehow, in the final moments, find a way to blow it and lose this election?
If you answered yes, you're a Democrat.
Two weeks out, only the Democrats in Washington think Obama might not win. That's not the result of a scientific study, but instead the conclusion I've reached after many lunches, dinners and elevator rides with DC Democrats. Against all evidence, a good number of them have convinced themselves that John McCain is going to be the next president.
Republicans have no master plan for victory, no October Surprise. You'll never convince most Democrats of that.
Partly this is superstition, like throwing salt over your shoulder when you spill the shaker: predictions are bad luck. But it's also the voice of experience.
"We're the Cincinnati Bengals," says Jay Rouse, a longtime Democratic political consultant. "Democrats are used to losing, not winning." That's especially true at the national level, where in the past 64 years only a single Democrat has been reelected president. The last two presidential elections raised doubts about whether Democrats were capable of wining at all. "People are still traumatized by '04," says James Carville.
They shouldn't be. A mediocre candidate running against an incumbent in a time of war isn't likely to win under any circumstances; if anything, Democratic insiders were too quick to blame John Kerry for his loss. Circumstances all but doomed him from the beginning. The problem was, up until about dinner time on election night, few of Kerry's supporters realized that.
The shock stings four years later. "Democrats are losers," says one former Democratic campaign operative with sadness. "Don't underestimate the capacity of Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," Obama himself told supporters last week. "Don't underestimate our ability to screw things up."
Give them a few drinks and many Democrats make remarkably self-loathing noises: we're disorganized, our interest groups are out of control, the rest of the country hates us. To these Democrats, Obama isn't really winning; the Republicans are losing. They fear fate could intervene at the last minute to change the course of the election.
It's the nightmare scenario, says Jay Rouse. "They're worried that Osama bin Laden is going to say, 'I want to have sex with Barack Obama.'"
If that happens, Karl Rove will get all the credit, at least in Democratic circles. Rove’s too busy giving speeches and doing TV to pick up his dry cleaning, yet Democrats imagine he's having breakfast with Satan every Thursday at the Four Seasons to chart strategy.
No one's more confident in Republican efficiency than Democrats. It's almost touching, and totally unwarranted. In real life, there are no WMD: Republicans have no master plan for victory, no October Surprise. The operation is as disjointed as it looks. You'll never convince most Democrats of that.
Even those Democrats who understand the true, greatly weakened state of the Republican Party have grave doubts about ordinary voters. If you've been out to dinner in a blue state in the last six weeks, you've heard the argument: This is still a racist country. Once they get in the booth, they'll never vote for a black man. It's the Bradley Effect, etc...In other words, it only looks like 2008. Actually, it's 1956.
Except that it's not. If anything, Obama’s race has been a net political asset so far. We'll find out for sure on Election Day, but in the meantime I'd be willing to bet that Obama wins a larger proportion of white men than John Kerry did four years ago. It's a different country than it used to be.
The question is whether, even in victory, Democrats will come to understand that. In order to govern successfully, they'll need to.